It’s a crazy world that we live in these days. We are still fighting a war that started fifteen years ago, and yet another war that is in its third iteration. Racial tensions are at levels not seen since the Civil Rights Act was passed, and our presidential election is the laughing stock of the international community. Of course, we still have the usual stress too. School is starting, which means financial burden for many parents. Friends and family are dying, and kids are being born. Bills are past due, your neighbor keeps letting his dog shit in your yard (and doesn’t pick it up), and Steve – that asshole from HR – keeps lecturing you on how watching the latest Black Rifle Coffee commercial at work is, “sexual harassment” and, “creates a hostile work environment.” Whatever, Steve.
Fortunately, most of us have found ways to escape, or at least mitigate the madness of our life and times. Whether it’s going to the range, hitting the gym, or throwing some meat on the grill – we need that therapy to keep our head above the ever-rising water. I recently found a new form of therapy in forging a knife from scratch. I have always wanted to learn the craft of blade-smithing, but never found the time or motivation to get going on it. Thankfully, Will Willis happened to come to town for a visit.
Will is a former Army Ranger and Air Force Pararescueman, and the host of History Channel’s Forged In Fire. He’ll tell you first hand that this craft, this art, is a form of straight therapy for him that is more effective than anything that comes out of a bottle. He’s passionate when he speaks about the many great blade smiths he has met and learned from, and dutifully carries the first knife he ever made on his belt. I would soon find out first hand what he meant when he said this art was his therapy.
On a hot South Dakota summer afternoon, we set out to make my first knife. The first stop was to pick up a few pieces of ten-inch by quarter-inch 1080 steel from my friends at Barti Metal Processing. We had a mandatory lunch break at Manolis Grocery for a sandwich and to pick up some beer, and then it was over to my uncle’s house to get to work. My uncle Randy, a long time blade smith himself, and my dad joined us. In retrospect I think the only thing better than forging a knife, is forging a knife with good beer and better company.
We would be forging a knife in what I believe is the purest way to do so: using a hand-cranked coal forge and an anvil made from a piece of a rail tie. We made short work of getting the forge hot enough, and before I knew it I was pulling a piece of red-hot steel out and taking my first swings on the anvil. We took turns cranking the wheel on the forge, and thanks to Will and my uncle, I learned the various techniques of moving the steel on the anvil.
Put the steel into the coal. Crank the forge, heat the steel to red-hot. Pull the steel out with the tongs. Put it on the anvil. Work the steel with your hammer until it loses its red tint. Repeat.
That was the order of the day, and it was intoxicating. The steel itself is not an easy mistress to bed. No, she makes you work for it every step of the way – no shortcuts available. The burning in your forearm after the 100th swing and the heat of the forge on your face coupled with the heat of the sun was visceral and intoxicating. It was not lost on me that I was forging one of man’s earliest tools in a way that was not so different than how the earliest men did it. I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that I could feel a connection to every man that had ever swung a hammer onto hot steel in the pursuit of making something from nothing. It’s literally hard work, and it’s addicting.
I could also feel the growing connection to my dad, my uncle, and Will throughout the process. Fellowship is something so important, but so hard to come by these days. For the four of us, we were either teaching or being taught – both of which are very fulfilling. We toasted fallen comrades, we traded stories, and we worked hard. Even my dad, who is rapidly losing the use of his hands from ALS, was able to turn the wheel on the forge and participate. A computer screen or a phone dominates so much of my day, and my communication with other humans is often done through the same, that I immediately started to feel my batteries recharged as the afternoon progressed into evening.
Even though I was in the presence of a good friend and family, and enjoying my time with them very much, I would still find myself getting lost in the coals and the swings of my hammer. Every crank on the forge, every swing of the hammer, I was shaping and changing something that the uninitiated perceive to be unshapeable and unchangeable. “Hard as steel” we often say when describing something that is impenetrable. I found myself contemplating past shortcomings and the things in my life that I can’t change, and viewing them in a different light. In my own mind, I was now re-shaping the hard steel of bad memories and experiences. I was looking at my present stresses in a more manageable way, as things that are not impossible to deal with, but rather must be worked with persistence and care.
I’m not done with my first knife yet. That night I learned a lot about what it takes to forge a knife and practiced the techniques necessary to shape steel into your desired state. I also don’t want to rush my first knife, and if you’re curious – I’m making it in the style of a Sykes-Fairburn commando knife. The craft and the art of forging a knife hooked me though. It is simultaneously a release of stress while teaching you to deal with your stress more effectively. To simplify how I feel about the forge, the steel, the anvil and the hammer: It makes sense of our crazy world, and it’s exactly what I needed in my life at that moment and still, right now.
Steve’s still an asshole though. Fuck you Steve.